Dateline Melbourne: Last (Sleeper) Train to Sydney

I was down at Melbourne's Southern Cross Station today, buying a sleeping car berth on the night train to Sydney. It's not for me, sadly (I love a sleeper train), but for a friend from Poland who's visiting Australia for the first time later this year. After attending a conference and sightseeing, she wants to visit Sydney before flying home - and for some reason she asked me to organise a sleeper berth rather than a flight.

(Above: An XPT sleeper train, about to leave Brisbane for Sydney in the wee small hours.)

I assume it's because she’s European. Over there you’d think nothing of taking a sleeper train between cities, in fact it might seem the logical and certainly more environmentally-friendly way to travel. Over here, choosing the sleeper train over a plane is seen as a sign of deep-seated eccentricity... and I'm not sure it's not.

Don’t get me wrong, the sleeper is definitely a more civilised way to travel. And given that it takes you from Melbourne's CBD to Sydney's CBD, bypassing all that faff of getting to/from airports, you'd think I'd be in favour. But I'm not entirely sure my friend realises how unusual is her choice - and how close it is to becoming redundant.

The New South Wales government is in the process of ordering new trains to replace the current XPT fleet, which is pushing four decades of service on the rails. When the XPT trains were first mooted as a late-20th century update for the Sydney-Melbourne, Sydney-Brisbane and other long-distance routes, the NSW government of the day toyed with leaving sleeper accommodation off, only to reverse its decision after public outcry.

(Above: XPT sleeper compartment ready to be converted to berths for two people, about to depart Sydney for Melbourne.)

Now? Not so much. This has been kept quiet, but it appears the XPT replacement fleet will have no sleeper cars. Which raises questions - will they still run overnight between the three state capitals they currently serve? And if so, will people be expected to sit up all night?

You might argue that with modern-day cheap flights, the sleeper car is a thing of the past. But I say its abandonment would be a pity, and short-sighted. Sleeper cars are in the midst of  a major revival in Europe, and if we're to reduce carbon emissions from flights they could become a key tool here too.

Because, get this - travelling from my Melbourne CBD apartment to Sydney’s CBD takes a good four hours, especially since I don’t like showing up at the airport too close to the flight departure time. On top of that, it inevitably dominates the day. On the other hand, if you can sleep for eight hours of an 11-hour sleep train journey, arriving and departing from city centres, that's a competitive way to travel, and with much less security hassle.

And of course we could make rail travel between our cities much faster, as the technology exists to do so. All that's required is political will and funding - and they sadly seem to have been left behind on the platform.

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